Teachers take momentum from strikes into midterm races

Melissa Daniels
Associated Press

Phoenix – As they packed up their protest signs and returned to the classroom to finish out the school year, thousands of teachers in North Carolina turned their attention to a different fight: the midterm elections.

Their counterparts in Arizona, Oklahoma and West Virginia are already waging a similar battle following protests over teacher pay that shut down schools statewide in recent months, transforming education funding into a major midterm campaign issue in many states.

Leaders of the Arizona movement are gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to tax the wealthy and use the extra money to pay for education. They are vowing to oust lawmakers and other state officials whom they deem anti-education. Teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky are running for office in larger numbers, in some cases directly challenging incumbents who slashed education spending.

A march through downtown Raleigh on Wednesday drew thousands of teachers and shuttered schools for about two-thirds of the state’s students. Hundreds of people outside the House and Senate galleries held signs and chanted: “Remember, remember, we vote in November.” City blocks turned red, the color of shirts worn by marchers shouting “We care! We vote!”

Teachers believe the momentum from the walkouts will propel them into the elections and force politicians to take education seriously.

“We turn to the ballot, and we get it done that way,” said Noah Karvelis, an organizer of the group Arizona Educators United that mobilized the teacher walkout. “We got the power, we just execute now.”

In Oklahoma, the candidate filing period coincided with the second week of a teacher walkout that drew thousands of disgruntled educators and their supporters to the Capitol. The result was dozens of teachers and administrators who filed for state House and Senate seats, many making their first-ever run for office.

In Kentucky, at least 39 current and former teachers are running for seats in the state legislature in its upcoming primary. The most high-profile race involves a high school math teacher who is running against Republican Jonathan Shell, state House majority floor leader. Shell helped write a bill making changes to the teachers’ troubled pension plan that prompted an angry response from teachers.

Amanda Jeffers, a Democrat and a high school English teacher in Oklahoma City, said she had no plans to run for office until the statewide teacher walkout, where she grew frustrated with the frosty reception she got from legislators.

“I always thought teachers were a respected community in the state. We were not treated with much respect,” Jeffers said. “The condescension is definitely what sent me over the edge.”

Arizona teachers, too, are pledging to stay politically involved following a six-day walkout that jammed the Capitol with raucous rallies and secured a 20 percent pay raise over three years from a Republican-controlled statehouse and GOP Gov. Doug Ducey.